Luke 13:10-17

Trinity Church Saugerties

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Luke 13:10 – 17

“Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your name….”  The key words in today’s Collect are: church, unity, holy Spirit and power.

If we look around us, we have to admit this prayer is not being answered.  Far from being gathered together in unity, the churches are splitting apart; and if unity is a prerequisite for power, the Church is not showing God’s power forth among all peoples.  What is wrong?  Jesus gathered people to himself in unity and showed forth God’s power; why can the Church not do the same?

We can look for the answer in today’s Gospel reading.  But let me lead into it with this story.  The popular author, Anne Rice, posted this on her Facebook page.  “I remain committed to Christ, as always, but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity….   I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

Anne is listing beliefs in her manifesto, not the faith of Christ.  She is speaking for a whole generation of what the church calls “nones.”  N-O-N-E-S.  That is, in filling out a form that asks for religious preference they check the box marked, “None.”  They have been led to think that the Christian faith is defined by beliefs; and that the church imposes those beliefs on us and that unless we subscribe to them our salvation is at risk.  Also, they think that the Church sees itself as gatekeeper at the doors of heaven.  In other words, the nones reject the Church, because they think it is all about beliefs — beliefs which they do not share.

The nones, I think, are looking for faith, not beliefs.  What is the difference?  Belief and faith cannot be separated, but let me try to distinguish between them this way.  Beliefs, whether true or false, tend to be about this world — things that can be proven, at least in theory.  Faith tends to be about things spiritual, linked more to hope than proof.  Basically, we hope that this life is not all there is.  We hope that another reality, an eternal reality — what Jesus called the kingdom of God — surrounds us and fills us as if we were sponges immersed in water.  We hope that at the heart of that kingdom dwells the God we came to know through Jesus.

Suppose we look at the controversy in today’s Gospel, between Jesus and the religious leader, with this contrast in mind — the contrast between belief and faith.  Both men share a faith that God is real, and that God gave the ten commandments, which are sacred.  I call this faith, because it cannot be proven, yet faith commits itself to living as if it were true.

Then doctrine enters the picture when religious leaders start to interpret what that faith means.  In this case, the fourth commandment says to keep holy the Lord’s day and do no work on that day.  It was up to scholars to decide what would qualify as work; and what they taught became beliefs.  I call these beliefs, not faith, because they are about this world (that is, specific behaviors) and they can be proven by reference to the original human teaching.

So here we have Jesus and the religious leader in a stand off.  The leader leans more toward beliefs; Jesus toward faith.  This implies quite a difference between them.  Obedience will be a prime value for the leader; while for Jesus we might call responsiveness a prime value.  Belief implies an external authority (the teaching), while responsiveness implies an inner authority (conscience, for instance, or an intimate sense of God’s real presence in the situation).  Belief lends itself to a need to control others; faith lends itself to allowing self-determination.

If we transpose those two stances — belief in contrast to faith — to today’s churches, we see a similar divide, even hostility.  And the divisions have come about over such things as Anne Rice mentioned.  Times and issues change, but those two basic stances, belief and faith, seem perennial.  Very likely they account for the Church’s failure to live out the prayer in today’s Collect.

It’s very tempting to argue for one side over the other, especially Jesus’ side.  But that approach has been tried for two thousand years, and the result has not varied.  Is there another approach?

There is, and it depends on seeing value in both sides.  I recently read a study by the Public Religion Research Institute where they surveyed voters to discover how many of us lean toward authoritarian leaders and how many toward self-determining leaders.  The proportion varied according to how much we feel under threat.  If our sense of threat rises, we are more likely to want an authoritarian leader.

In Jesus’ day, his people lived in an environment of threat.  The Roman overlords ruled by terror.  They crucified “enemies of the state” by the thousands, both before and after Jesus’ time.  And the Romans’ tax collectors could be extortionate; so the threat of becoming destitute was also real.  In an environment like that, wouldn’t we all opt for stability of any kind, including the stability offered by set and inflexible beliefs?

So let us have compassion for the religious leader.  No doubt he was an anxious man, and Jesus would have seen that.  Would Jesus have wanted to put him to shame, as the Gospel claims?  Much more likely, Jesus would have wanted to heal the leader, who was crippled by anxiety, just as he had healed the crippled woman.

If this Gospel account of Jesus’ healing on the sabbath is distorted, why might that be?  Perhaps Luke was also anxious; for he was fighting his own battle.  After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, it was up for grabs who would get to define Judaism.  Luke wanted it to be Jesus’ community; the Pharisees wanted it to be theirs.  In other words, Luke might have relocated his own controversy back into Jesus’ day.

However it was, I want to call on the fourth key term in today’s Collect, the holy Spirit.  As long as we have beliefs — and we cannot live without them — differences will abound.  But maybe the Church’s power — including the power to attract the nones — does not depend on unity of belief and does not depend on agreeing to one polity.  Maybe the unity which is brought about by the holy Spirit is a unity of love.

You’ve heard the saying, “Listening is love.”  Suppose that we, moved by the holy Spirit, simply listened to those who believe differently than we do.  Listened with respect and appreciation.  Listened not to argue, but to understand, and at a deep level.  Listened not just to understand the belief, but also the environment that gave rise to that belief.

Sister and brothers, let us live not only by our beliefs, but also by our faith.  And we have faith, as the Gospel of John reminds us, that perfect love casts out fear.  So we need not fear to listen with open hearts to those who disagree with us.  This is the kind of faith that will show forth God’s power among all peoples.  Amen.

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